IN SEARCH OF A PEACE DIVIDEND

VIRTUALLY EVERY TOWN AND VILLAGE in the North has a military cemetery for its fallen soldiers. Tended by schoolchild¬ren and groups of volunteer veterans, they are meticulously manicured, the grass carefully clipped, the gravel pathways spotlessly tidy. In a country where the unofficial religion is ancestor worship, a country where relatives visit and talk with their departed loved ones on special days of the year, these resting places are more than memorials. They are shrines—to the bonds of family, to the sacrifice of nation, to the cycles of life. At the foot of many small headstones, incense sticks burn and freshly cut flowers and bowls of fruit are neatly arranged. Some of the stones are marked with a name, others with just the words liet sy—“martyr” or “unknown soldier.” In these cemeteries, by the tens of thousands, lie the “nameless, faceless communists” the AP’s George Esper spoke of; I sus¬pected if I had known them thirty years earlier, in circumstances other than a war, I would have found many friends, just as I had in Hanoi among their sons and daughters.
The largest of the graveyards is Truong Son, near Dong Ha in Quang Tri, a war-ravaged province that was part of South Vietnam until “liber¬ated” by the North in its Easter Offensive of 1972. (President Nixon re¬sponded to the offensive with the comment: “The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.”) The head-stones stretch row after row in perfect symmetry as far as the eye can see, more than 10,000 of them spread over 300 acres. The grave markers start at a stone monument whose three towering columns—visible from a long way down the road—resemble the stems of a flower and reach up the slopes of a grass-covered knoll and slip off toward a clump of trees to the east. The cemetery, opened in 1975 soon after the fall of Saigon, became the final home of soldiers who died on battlefields throughout the South, their bodies brought to Dong Ha in groups of five and six as corpses turned up here and there over the course of many years. Occasionally there is still a burial. At the end of the path near the entrance is a small visitors’ center where many foreigners and Vietnamese stop to sign the guest register.
I toured the cemetery the first time with Bobby Muller, who had come to Vietnam in 1969 as a gung-ho Marine lieutenant and gone home as a paraplegic. “We were meant to guard the Cam Lo bridge that night and I just got whacked,” he said of the bullet that severed his spine. Muller, who now was fifty-four years old and president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, maneuvered his wheelchair past rows of headstones. He paused occasionally by one of the headstones, then would have to ap¬ply extra muscle on the handgrips to get his wheels moving again on the gravel. I’d offer to push and he’d say impatiently, “Naw, I got it.” Muller had been lifted by chopper from the battlefield and spent a year at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx. “The place stunk, it was overcrowded,” he said. He left the hospital as an antiwar activist. I asked him if he remembered what he was doing the day Saigon fell in 1975.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was where I was every afternoon. At the track. I’d reached the stage in my life where I’d pretty much said fuck it. And when you’re trying to figure out a daily double and a couple of perfecta bets at Belmont, the collapse of Vietnam was pretty much a background piece.
“To be truthful, I didn’t like the Vietnamese. Sorry. But that’s how I felt. In First Corps, up north where the Marines’ AO [area of operation] was, the Vietnamese didn’t see us as liberators. We were the people bring¬ing down the reign of terror. Frankly they’d fuck with us all the time. And I’d think, ‘Excuse me. I’ve just come 10,000 miles to save you from com¬munism. So what’s with this attitude you’ve got?’ The ARVN, I worked with three of their battalions. Every single time there was a firefight, the ARVN would split. But the NVA were absolutely the toughest, most dedicated sons of bitches you’d ever want to fight. Everything I had to do with the Vietnamese was a negative experience.”
Muller’s arms were getting tired now as the wheels of his chair crunched through the gravel. We turned down a path to the left and headed back toward the visitors’ center. I don’t know why, but I jotted down some names on the markers we passed: Nguyen Van Luc, Phan Tien Lam, Liet Sy, Ho Khac Nghi.
“When I got involved with the vets’ antiwar movement,” Muller said, “my attitude was that I couldn’t flip-flop and go from having my guys die fighting communists to, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho, the NLF [National Liberation Front, i.e., the Viet Cong] is going to win.’ I just said, ‘This is wrong. We shouldn’t have gotten involved.’ Back in ’70, ’71, it was absolutely stunning to me that I, who had killed more communists than anyone I’d ever met, would be called a communist for opposing the war by people who were still waving the flag, my country right or wrong. I’d ask them why they weren’t against the war and they’d say, ‘We support our boys.’ My rejoin¬der was: ‘Excuse me, we. . . are. . . the boys.’”

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